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Living Together Separately: Is It for You?

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

In Why Couples Fight, we talk about how there is no relationship problem that can’t be solved with more distance. The distance might ultimately kill the relationship, but it sure will solve the immediate problem. Sex is bad you and you can’t talk about it? Don’t have sex anymore!

Well, the New York Times thinks there’s a trend in this direction of more distance. Married couples “living apart together” is how it’s called. Not separated as in “we’re separated because we’re in the process of getting a divorce.” But separated as in “we’re still a couple but we think we’ll do that better if we don’t live together.”

Like having separate bathrooms, but instead...houses. I don’t know if it’s a trend: there are less than 3% of couples doing this. But still, it’s an idea.

I know what you’re thinking. If you’re like some people, you’re thinking, “Ooh, I want to get me some of that!” If you’re like others, you’re thinking, “Puh-leez! Who are they kidding! That’s not a marriage!!” And if you’re like a lot of people, you’re, like, “Huh?”

What exactly are we talking about here, though? The first couple we meet in the article are a rural couple, 58 and 62, with teen-age children. The wife, Connie, said she was an extrovert and wanted to live nearer city life—Columbia, Missouri—and they felt that one of their kids would benefit from going to high school in a less rural area. So Connie got an apartment in Columbia, they visit each other’s homes a couple of times a week, and they talk on the phone twice a day.

Now there’s only one thing you can say about any arrangement. Does it work? That it!

For this couple, a few years have gone by and the article says Connie’s happy and that the two of them are sticking with the arrangement. So I have no basis for commenting on whether it’s really “working” for both people.

But Connie talks about how it’s working for her:

“I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a farmer. I don’t know where I fit,” Ms. Ordway said, recalling how she felt before moving into her own place. “Where’s the me part?” Ms. Ordway said that having her own home helps her “remember who I am by myself, remember what I like doing by myself. And that was a lovely gift.”

Millions—millions—of women living together NOT apart from their spouses have struggled like Connie Ordway to find the “me” that’s gotten lost after years of marriage, while the husband stands by helpless as a mayfly in a monsoon. But—and this is crucial—this issue by itself wouldn’t require “living together separately” for a couple to work it out. For the Orways, there was also the issue of one wanting the rural life, the other wanting the city life.

So why else would a couple want to live together separately? In the NYTimes article, we find the Akhands. Sana Akhand had never lived on her own. Coming from a traditional background and living with her husband Adnan in a small New York City apartment, Sana

felt herself spending more and more time being a caretaker. “Being a wife is subconsciously really draining, because you’re just thinking about this other person, their well-being,” Ms. Akhand said.

After several months, Sana and Adnan were living together again, though this time in a new place where she had her own bathroom and an entire other room all to herself.

The best part of the idea of “living together separately” is that it enables a couple to experiment.

There is every reason to believe that it’s worth while to think long and hard about how the two of you are living if things aren’t working well. “Living together separately” is part of a set of solutions to couples problems called structural solutions. These are solutions that have to do with how you structure your lives. Such as...

  • Sleeping in separate bedrooms

  • One of you quitting their job

  • Hiring someone to clean your house

  • Re-deciding who pays for what

And of staying together but living apart. But it’s really important to keep two things in mind here.

One is that whatever you do is an experiment. Something you try for, say, 6 months or a year. Then you assess how it’s working. Most of all, is it helping with the problem it’s supposed to help with?

The second thing to keep in mind is you have to be thoughtful about how what you’re doing will really address your core problem. For example—and this might sound silly—the best reason to live together separately is that you want to live together separately. There is something about your actually living together, your needs, your patterns, your effects on each other, that would make living apart better for you both, while keeping alive your desire to see each other and be with each other.

But simply saying, We’re living apart because we found we were getting on each other’s nerves may not be a good solution at all. If the two of you get on each other’s nerves, well, maybe you just don’t like each other. Maybe you’re ensnared in toxic power dynamics. Distance isn’t going to be your solution. It’ll just wake you up to the deadness of your relationship.

This is why it can be helpful to consult with an experienced, open-minded couples therapist before taking the step of living apart. Not because that’s a bad idea, but because it might not be the idea best targeted at your problems.


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